Ruffalo mesmerizes as lawyer fighting DuPont
If the story of “Dark Waters” sounds familiar, to a certain extent it is. But this film is not business as usual, with the presence of director Todd Haynes and star Mark Ruffalo the key reasons why.
On the most basic level “Dark Waters” is a whistleblower story, the latest in a genre of doing-the-rightthing scenarios that includes such popular films as “Erin Brockovich,” “The Insider” and even “All the President’s Men.”
Inspired by an article in the New York Times Magazine, “Dark Waters” could have simply followed the template of the story’s upbeat headline, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” telling the story of attorney Robert Bilott, who worked for more than 20 years to expose decades of heedless environmental contamination dreadful enough to cost the chemical giant $670 million in fines.
Ruffalo, an actor with an activist bent, read that story and decided to star in a movie version, becoming lead producer and hiring Haynes, a director whose 1995 “Safe” was ecologically prescient, and a filmmaker who never does anything the expected way.
Working with screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan,
Haynes has constructed a dark, edgy film, disturbing and meant to be, a real-life horror show that details the impunity with which DuPont put profits above the known harm its chemicals were causing.
“Dark Waters” also focuses on the wrenching, disconcerting consequences of doing the right thing, on the number of grinding years of unrelenting, life-changing pressure — more than 20 in this case — that were needed to even begin to make a difference.
One of the many ironies in this story is that Bilott was in almost all ways the least likely guy to become the environmental hero.
Yes, Bilott (played by Ruffalo) was an attorney, but the Cincinnati firm he worked for was old-school conservative to the core. Recently made a partner, his area of specialization was defending big corporations rather than suing them.
That all began to change on a day in 1998 when gruff and furious Wilbur Tennant (a brilliant Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, who was acquainted with Bilott’s grandmother, made the trip to Cincinnati and insisted “I want a lawyer.”
Though he’s a new father and his wife, Sarah (an expert Anne Hathaway), is not sure why he’s even bothering, Bilott feels compelled to take the drive to
Tennant has both physical evidence and videotape recordings of the horrors that have been visited on his herd of cattle, 190 of which he has buried. Tennant feels that the damage is caused by the neighboring Dry Run Landfill, where the Washington Works factory operated by DuPont deposits its chemical waste.
Before making what he views as a friendly colleague-to-colleague request to a pal at DuPont, Bilott runs his plan past his superior, the buttoned down Tom Terp (Tim Robbins, expert as well).
Neither man has any idea of what they, and their firm, are getting into, though when a DuPont functionary warns Bilott that “you’re flushing your career down the toilet,” he starts to get the idea.
That’s because, as the lawyer finds out, a chemical variously known as PFOA or C8 and essential to the manufacture of Teflon, is being released into the Parkersburg water supply.
Ruffalo is splendid at projecting the unusual combination of bred-inthe-bone idealism with mulish stubbornness that made it impossible for Bilott to walk away.
Mark Ruffalo plays a lawyer who fights for the environment in “Dark Waters.” PG-13 (for thematic content, some disturbing images and strong language) 2:06